I was in the beautiful city of Hamburg for just about two and a half weeks. I stayed quite busy, but it was definitely not enough time to see and do everything. This visit also proved the beauty of the Watson Fellowship and the random, but awesome, connections I've made around the world. While I was in Japan, Nobuko (a Japanese friend of my aunt's who has a daughter with Down Syndrome) introduced me to Carolyn (who happened to graduate from Pomona College and also has a daughter with special needs). Carolyn then introduced me to Steffi and Marc, a German couple from Hamburg who happened to be visiting Japan while I was there. As it turns out Steffi works with people with special needs! So, I made a point to visit Hamburg during my time in Germany.
In Nuremberg, I learned a lot about what life is like for high functioning individuals with disabilities. However, in Hamburg I was able to complete the picture and learn about provisions available for lower functioning individuals who need a bit more daily help than others. Steffi works in what I will call a day care center. The umbrella organization, Alsterdorf Assistenz, has a long history in Hamburg and last year celebrated its 150th birthday. Providing for the needs of individuals before the year 1900 was quite revolutionary. Sadly though, Nazi policies during WWII tainted the organization's history. While the leadership of Alsterdorf didn't necessarily approve of the euthanasia practice, they were perhaps powerless to stop the program from affecting those within their care. It was absolutely heartbreaking to learn about this heavy history. I was only consoled by seeing the true redemption that has occurred in the organization and the community since that dark time.
There were a lot of different activities going on at the day care center. After a leisurely morning of breakfast and coffee, people did art projects, went grocery shopping, worked in the kitchen preparing lunch, folded laundry, played games. A few times a week people are also transported to other locations for fun activities or small jobs. I got to go dancing with them a couple times while I was there! All of these activities provide meaningful stimulation for people with disabilities. This is NOT a day care where people just sit idle all day, they are active and engaged. The staff provides smiles and encouragement all day long.
Here are some of my friends at the day care center. It was dress up day so I got to wear a crazy hat. I sure love all the wonderful people I've met on this journey!
I think what I was most impressed with though is the Ursprung Cafe that is a part of Alsterdorf. The cafe is a great example of productive community effort. It is located in the lobby of a local church that lends the space for free, making it possible for Alsterdorf to afford running a cafe. People from the day care center are assigned to work in the cafe each day for the few days it is open per week. In the morning, everyone works together preparing lunch and serving the morning customers. To make the job accessible to everyone working there, the staff devised a really unique menu system. Each table in the cafe has a corresponding symbol. So, if someone sits down at the star table, they will receive the star menu. The menu then has a cards for each item, a coffee card, a lunch card, a tea card, each with the star symbol on the back. The customer orders by giving the cards to the worker. This way, even people with disabilities who may not be able to read and write, can still participate in the cafe work. I thought this was quite clever and empowering. The staff really try to make sure that the people with disabilities are doing the work and getting the experience. It is a team effort, everyone has a lot of fun!
Here is Steffi and Christian getting the tables set up with the cool menus.
|Chopping carrots for lunch.|
|The cafe crew.|
Another striking thing I learned in Germany: people working with individuals with special needs have a surprisingly high level of education. For instance, Steffi has a degree “staatlich geprufter heilerziehungspfleger." This roughly translates to a “certified care worker,” which I would describe as a mix between a social worker, a special education teacher, and a nurse. People working toward this degree take classes in physical care, inclusion, disability policy, and do one or more internships at an organization. As far as I know, the United States does not have an equivalent degree. In fact, I would venture to say that very little education would be required for someone to work in a similar day care center in the U.S. From what I saw in Germany, the quality of the staff’s education at day care centers, workshops, and residential homes really improved the quality of the programs, activities, and general atmosphere. The U.S. would do well to learn from Germany in this case. I expect my professors, for example, to be educated and qualified to teach, why not expect the staff working in the special needs community to be appropriately educated and qualified as well.
There is one final thing I want to mention about my time in Hamburg. Steffi took me to an awesome exhibition called Dialog in the Dark. It was an amazing experience that gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of people who are blind. Small groups go through the experience in complete darkness led by a blind guide. We went through rooms that simulated different environments. We crossed a busy street, went to the supermarket, rode on a boat, and listened to music all without our sight. Throughout the tour the guide gave us some insight into different techniques blind people use to get through everyday tasks. Then at the end of the guided tour we sat in a cafe (also in complete darkness) and chatted with each other and our guide about the experience. The 90 minutes I spent in the dark was one of the most interesting things I’ve done this year. It was fascinating to experience things without the aid of sight. At the supermarket simulation, there was a stand of fruit and vegetables near the street. I found the sounds of the street and the people around to be so distracting that I could hardly identify the fruits and vegetables by touch. We pick out foods at the grocery store without even thinking, but take away sight and I couldn’t tell a tomato from an orange. I noticed immediately that I am not particularly kinesthetic. Touch did not prove too helpful in getting through the exhibition, but the sound of the surroundings and the guide’s voice was much more meaningful and easy to follow. I didn’t want to leave the darkness, I wanted to keep learning and exploring. I was reminded of how I would close my eyes and try to walk through my house without sight when I was younger. Of course, I am more grateful than ever for my sight, but I appreciated the stimulation and what I learned about myself. I would encourage everyone to try an experience like this sometime. (And if anyone knows if there is something similar to Dialog in the Dark in the U.S. let me know!)
As always, there is so much more I could say about my jam-packed time in Hamburg. I took a sightseeing trip to Berlin, toured a particle accelerator, learned about some interesting Down Syndrome research, got to see my dear friend Veronika from Jordan, spent a night in a tiny German village... Ask me about it sometime! :)
|Sitting at Dietrich Bonhoeffer's desk in Berlin.|
I felt like a fan girl enthralled with the famous German theologian.
|Made my own chocolate bar at the Ritter Sport Store in Berlin.|
|LOVED the cross walk symbols! Too cute!|
|A nice drive through the German countryside.|
|Toured the tunnel that will soon house a |
new particle accelerator.